Category Archives: Most Wanted List

Observing an Impaired Driving Enforcement Training

By Member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

This summer, I had the opportunity to observe men and women training to be law enforcement officers. Part of their training included 40 hours focused specifically on executing a standardized field sobriety test (SFST).

The SFST is a series of assessments an officer performs during a traffic stop to determine if a driver is impaired. I was surprised to learn how the SFST also helps officers detect drivers who are impaired by drugs other than alcohol.  When an officer encounters a subject who he believes to be impaired, his first response will be to evaluate his physical condition by administering a SFST.  Although all the clues for impairment which are analyzed in the SFST are for alcohol, there are similarities in impairment by some of the 7 different drug classes.  Additionally, the presence of some impairment clues and the absence of others can be a strong indicator of drug impairment.  For instance, a subject who displays nystagmus (uncontrollable twitching of the eyes) from alcohol impairment will also present an inability to maintain balance.  With some drug classes, there will be a high degree of nystagmus, but their balance may not be affected to the same degree.  The same goes with the strong odor of alcohol.  If a subject is obviously impaired but has no odor of alcohol about their breath, drug impairment may have an influence.  When officers administer an SFST to a suspected drug-impaired driver, the results often identify the need for a drug recognition expert (DRE) to evaluate the driver for physical signs of drug impairment.

Trainees learn about the effects of alcohol on the body and the visual cues to look for when they suspect a driver is impaired, as well as how to determine the likelihood of impairment so they have probable cause to administer an impairment test. In addition to the SFST training, officers spend hours learning how to document impaired driving arrests and how to present evidence of such arrests in court.

To effectively practice these skills, trainees conduct the SFST on live subjects who have consumed varying amounts of alcohol in a controlled environment (a law-enforcement training facility; subjects are driven home by law enforcement officers afterward). Volunteers are given measured amounts of alcohol over the course of 4 hours prior to the mock SFST, and then are given a breath test to document their breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) as the evaluation begins. SFST instructors observe trainees as they evaluate subjects and offer real-time feedback and suggestions for improvement. By using live subjects, trainees witness how variably alcohol consumption can present in individuals.

A law enforcement trainee conducts the SFST on a live subject that has consumed alcohol.
A law enforcement trainee conducts the SFST on a live subject that has consumed alcohol

I spent some time with the live subjects, all of whom were impaired, before their evaluations. All subjects had a BrAC of 0.08 percent or higher and, had they been behind the wheel, would have been subject to arrest. The SFST instructor showed me the documented BAC levels of the subjects. While all of the subjects were at or above 0.08, they were each keenly aware that they were in no condition to drive. They were unsteady on their feet, reacted slowly to orders, and struggled to follow directions given by the trainees. I couldn’t tell which subjects had higher BACs than others, but just knowing that some were close to or just above the “legal limit,” I would not be comfortable sharing the road with any of them.

When the evaluations started, I got to be one of the (sober) subjects evaluated by the trainees. I received the same set of questions and was given the same tests as the impaired subjects. The SFST is incredibly thorough, and officers determine the likelihood of impairment by scoring the elements of the test based on how the subject performs. I was asked questions such as, “Where are you coming from?” “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” “Are you on any medications or do you have any medical conditions that I should be aware of?” From there, I was asked to walk a certain number of steps, heel to toe, counting each step out loud; to stand on one foot with my arms at my sides and balance, and to track a pen that the trainee moved in front of my face from side to side. The test is designed to evaluate a person’s ability to complete simultaneous tasks—an ability that is hindered by impairment. What I learned later is that each part of the test helps the officer gather data about the subject—slurred speech, an alcohol odor, impaired coordination, and atypical eye movement are all signs of impairment. Subjects who score in or above a certain range on the test are considered to have a positive likelihood of impairment.

Member Dinh-Zarr undergoes the SFST
Member Dinh-Zarr undergoes the SFST

I learned two things through this test. First, I struggle with balancing on one foot, even when I’m sober! Second, the trainees are taught this protocol very thoroughly; they are instructed to take their time and not rush any element of the test. They need to be very deliberate because officers cannot administer a breath test unless they positively detect impairment.

End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. Specifically, we recommend that all states lower their per se BAC limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent or lower. Observing this SFST training exercise reaffirms my belief in the NTSB’s position on this recommendation. A 0.08 percent BAC illegal limit is far too high. At .05, drivers have difficulty with vision, coordination, and steering, even if they may not realize it.  In fact, in 2016, approximately 1,400 people were killed by drivers with a BAC of 0.01­–0.07 percent.

.01 - .07 BAC Fatalities
Driver BAC’s from fatal crashes in 2016. Drivers are not considered legally impaired before 0.08 BAC, but 1,400 people were killed by drivers that had between 0.01 and 0.07 BAC in 2016.

In addition to calling on states to lower their legal BAC limit, we also recommend increased high-visibility enforcement, such as sobriety checkpoints, which allow law enforcement officers to screen a high number of drivers in a short amount of time for potential impairment. All of these safety recommendations are not intended to increase arrests.  In fact. they may decrease the number of arrests because they deter many impaired people from even getting behind the wheel in the first place.  That is true prevention!

Our 2013 report, “Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving” includes a series of recommendations to combat impaired driving. We believe that implementing a combination of a lower BAC legal limit, increased or high-visibility enforcement, and mandatory ignition interlock devices for all DUI offenders can reduce the number of impaired drivers on our roadways. Our goal is to eliminate impaired driving by convincing people to separate drinking or drugging from driving.

I’d like to thank all law enforcement officers who conduct SFSTs and remove alcohol-impaired drivers from our roadways. It may not seem as glamourous as other aspects of their job, but they are making our nation safer with this important work. These trained professionals help keep our roads safe and prevent families from losing a loved one to an impaired driving crash. It’s up to the rest of us to do our part to reach zero.

Back-to-School Safety Series: Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel, Minds on What Matters

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Safety Advocacy Division

 Parents and teens, please read this blog together (not while you’re driving!).

Driving fast with a sport carWhen you hear “distracted driving,” you probably immediately think of the endless “don’t text and drive” campaigns across the nation each year. This is not without good reason—texting and driving is certainly one of the deadliest forms of distraction. Reading or responding to a text takes your eyes from the road for 5 seconds. If you’re traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to drive the entire length of a football field.

Today’s teens have grown up with near-constant access to social media. Some teens text and drive, even though they acknowledge it’s dangerous. According to a recent AAA poll, 94% of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35% admitted to doing it anyway. Modern teens are often inseparable from their phones. It’s hard to think of a scenario in which a teen isn’t pulling out a device to text, take a selfie, or access social media. Most of the time, this is a minor annoyance to those competing for a teen’s attention, but this habit playing out behind the wheel could kill someone.

Distracted driving can be as deadly as driving impaired—the law supports this fact. New laws are being implemented across the nation to curb distracted driving; for example, an Oregon law that went into effect July 1st punishes distracted drivers with consequences akin to those incurred by DUI offenders. And, like many of the other topics we’ve covered in our Back-to-School Safety Series—impairment, drowsy driving, and seat belts—“Eliminate Distractions” is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

But what many fail to realize is that distracted driving is more harmful for teens than DUI—teens who text and drive are involved in 6 times more car accidents than their drunk‑driving counterparts, making it statistically even more dangerous to drive distracted than to drink and drive (and that’s saying something, considering the common knowledge that drinking and driving is an often fatal, horrible idea). Distracted driving kills more teens than drunk driving. A 20-year-old’s reaction time while talking on a cell phone is equal to the reaction time of 70-year-old. Texting while driving increases crash risk 23 times over for drivers of all ages. Texting while driving now accounts for 1.6 million crashes a year—that’s 25% of all car crashes. It’s a bigger issue than a few typed words on a little cell phone screen would seem.

As we mentioned in our introductory blog, if children grow up watching their parents drive distracted without major incident, they’ll see the danger as slight and the behavior as acceptable. But what your children don’t know is that whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth, at any moment the statistics can catch up to you. The good news is that 62 percent of teens say they don’t text and drive when their parents remind them not to—so, starting now, remind your kids about the dangers of distracted driving, and then practice what you preach.

Take a moment now and talk about it. Make a family rule on distraction and hold each other accountable.

Ten Years Later: Remembering Chatsworth With Action

By  Member Jennifer Homendy

Ten years ago today, September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train filled with passengers in Chatsworth, California, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The collision took the lives of 25 people and injured 102 others. The cause: A texting engineer. A human operator making a human error.

On this 10th anniversary, we offer our condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Chatsworth tragedy.

 

Photo of the Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With
Union Pacific

Although I was not a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board at that time, I was working tirelessly as the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate implementation of technology, called positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented the Chatsworth accident from occurring.

PTC is designed to automatically stop a train when a human operator fails to. Human error is the leading cause of all train accidents. Frustratingly, the NTSB has been recommending that railroads implement PTC to address human error-caused accidents for nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the Chatsworth collision and a number of others investigated by the NTSB, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of 2015. As the deadline approached, Congress extended it to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions until 2020. Now, as the new deadline approaches, PTC is still not fully implemented.

We know from railroad reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency charged with regulating the railroads, that PTC is operational on only a small fraction of the railroad network.

Accidents, however, continue to occur. Since 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Together, these accidents have resulted in 29 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than $190 million in property damage.

Tomorrow, Chairman Sumwalt will testify on Capitol Hill regarding the need to finish the job without further delay. Regrettably, nothing that the NTSB does can turn back the clock and change a tragic outcome; we can only urge that others be spared such an outcome in the future.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and for the safety recommendations we made as a result of the Chatsworth crash so that a similar tragedy is prevented in the future.

In the meantime, there is something you can do as we remember Chatsworth: eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. Distraction continues to play a significant role in accidents.

Distracted driving kills thousands and injures hundreds of thousands every year. On the railroads, PTC is an effective backstop in case an operator is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise unable to take the right action. But operators must still adhere to strict procedures to minimize the chance of an accident.

On the highways, collision avoidance systems—forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking—are beginning to play a similar role to PTC. We think that these systems should be on every car, and we are working toward that outcome. But even without a collision avoidance system, you can take control by doing the right thing. Don’t send a text, make a call, or update your social media while driving. Strict laws aimed at preventing the use of portable electronic devices while driving and high-visibility enforcement can help, but ultimately, it’s up to each driver to drive attentively.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Chatsworth collision, we still have a long way to go to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again. But there are things we can do. We can insist railroads complete PTC implementation on all their tracks. We can choose vehicles with collision avoidance systems, and we can refuse to drive distracted.

Fatal collisions don’t end on impact; they echo through communities for years after the moment of a crash. But there can be hope as well as mourning in the echoes—hope for change that will prevent future tragedies. It will take all of us in transportation—professionals and the general public—to ensure the lessons learned from the Chatsworth tragedy result in that change.

 

The Value of Video

By Jennifer Morrison, NTSB Investigator-in-Charge, Office of Highway Safety

 On January 19, 2016, a Greyhound bus with 22 people on board was traveling on a California interstate in the dark in moderate-to-heavy wind and rain. The driver intended to take the left exit, en route to the next stop in San Jose, but instead crashed the bus head-on into the end of a concrete barrier. The bus jumped the barrier and rotated onto its side. Two passengers were ejected and died; the driver and 13 passengers were injured.

The crash occurred at 6:37 in the morning, after the driver had been on duty, commuting to his route and driving the bus, for about 12 hours. Tempting as it was to assume this crash resulted from driver fatigue, our investigation soon revealed that other factors were at play.

HWY16MH005_prelim[1]
Final rest position of bus and remains of REACT 350 crash attenuator base
When I arrived on scene with the rest of the “go team,” we discovered that the highway interchange where the crash occurred had four through lanes, two right exit lanes, and a single left exit lane. When the driver moved the bus left to what he thought was the left exit lane, he instead unintentionally entered a 990-foot-long unmarked gore area that separated the through lanes from the left exit lane. The gore area ended at the concrete barrier where the crash occurred. The crash attenuator at the end of the barrier likely absorbed some crash energy, but it was not designed to redirect a large commercial vehicle like a Greyhound bus.

What was interesting about the crash attenuator was that it had been hit before; our investigation found that damage from the previous impact had ripped the reflective sheeting off its face. Records showed that the California Department of Transportation had placed temporary barricades but had never finished the repair.

Fortunately for our investigation, the bus, like most of Greyhound’s buses now, was equipped with a video camera system. Video recovered from the bus showed that the temporary barricades had blown over, possibly in the wind and rain that morning. As we watched the forward-facing and inward-facing videos, the scene became clear: the driver was attentive as he signaled and moved into the gore area, interpreting it to be a travel lane. At 1 second before impact, a dark black barrel (the first part of the crash attenuator) appeared in the middle of the “lane” (see Figure 1). There was no reflective sheeting on its face, and there were no temporary barricades set up to identify the hazard.

Without the video camera system onboard the bus, it would’ve been impossible to know that the barricades had blown over prior to the crash, rather than simply been displaced by the event. Without the video evidence, it would have been easy to assume that the driver was just too tired or otherwise distracted by fatigue to see the warning. But the video showed clearly and indisputably the events leading up to the crash.

greyhound video
Still image of onboard video at 1 second prior to impact.

Onboard video systems provide investigators and fleet owners with the invaluable, unbiased evidence to interpret—and work to prevent—crashes like this one. That’s why we’ve strongly recommended they be installed on all highway vehicles for decades. We even emphasize the importance of these systems on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. This crash illustrates why this technology is important, and we continue to urge operators to install it across their fleets.

NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements 2017-2018

To learn more about this issue, join us Thursday, September 13 at 2 PM EST, for our “Reducing CMV Crashes Through the Use of Video Recorders webinar.” In our 1-hr webinar, NTSB Member Bella Dinh-Zarr, investigators and recorder analysts from the Office of Highway Safety and Office of Research and Engineering, along with commercial fleet owners representing the truck and bus industries, will discuss why and how their organizations use video recorders to improve safety. NTSB investigators will provide an in-depth discussion into the Greyhound crash discussed in this blog and will also highlight a truck case study. For more details or to register, visit this link.

 

 

 

Working for Safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman

 Labor Day and Memorial Day both have specific relevance that can be lost in seasonal associations. The meaning of Memorial Day as a time to honor those lost in our nation’s wars can be eclipsed by its unofficial role as the “kickoff day” for summer. Similarly, all too often, we think of Labor Day only as summer’s end rather than as a commemoration of the contributions of the nation’s working men and women.

This Labor Day, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for the men and women who work every day in transportation, doing everything right so that there’s not an accident for the NTSB to investigate.

TranspWorker_ThankYou2

From owner-operators of long-haul trucks to employees of the biggest trucking companies; from captains of small fishing boats to employees of the biggest cruise lines and marine cargo companies; from air-tour operators to airline pilots and cabin crews; and throughout railroad and pipeline transportation, safe transportation depends on the dedication and hard work of the people on the front lines: individual transportation workers.

At the NTSB, we investigate what goes wrong in transportation. In each accident, we look at the human, the machine, and the environment. When we find a lapse in any of those areas, we look for ways to eliminate the opportunity for error. Meanwhile, day in and day out, good men and women go to work every day and do everything right. We don’t investigate the truck that stayed on the road because its conscientious drivers got plenty of sleep, or the ship that didn’t run aground because its captain and crew were well-trained and attentive. We’ll never hold a Board meeting to discuss one of the millions of safe airline flights every year, or to talk about the pipeline operators and railroad employees who found the safety defect among thousands of miles of rail or pipe before it caused an accident.

Although technology and design innovations have greatly improved transportation safety, we haven’t yet managed to eliminate everything that can go wrong in transportation. That’s why we depend so heavily on the nation’s transportation workers, who face rigorous rules and laws, to ensure safety. Commercial truckers and pilots log their rest and duty time to prevent fatigue. While the general driving public is subjected to a .08-percent blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit, for commercial drivers, the limit is already .04 percent. And then there are all the safety procedures these professionals are required to know—and follow—throughout their commercial transportation careers.

The majority of our nation’s transportation professionals meet these high standards and are intent on preventing transportation tragedies. As Chairman of the NTSB and a member of the traveling public, I want to express my appreciation for all those transportation workers who are quietly doing things right, day in and day out.

Professor James Reason once said that safety professionals live with a “chronic unease.” Safety is a matter of constantly searching out the unassessed hazard, the unmitigated risk. Transportation operators at every level embrace this difficult challenge every day. On this Labor Day, I gratefully tip my hat to each one of you who takes safety seriously.

 

Two Years and Counting . . . Still no FAA Action

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Saturday, July 30, 2016.

The day started like most summer days in central Texas—hot and muggy, with the Lockhart Blog.jpgchance of foggy and cloudy conditions around daybreak. I can only imagine the feelings of excitement—perhaps even a few fleeting moments of apprehension—as the pilot and his 15 passengers climbed into the basket of the enormous hot air balloon. The large smiley face that adorned the side of the balloon was emblematic of what the day’s flight was supposed to be for these paying passengers, who were celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and even, belatedly, Mother’s Day. Tragically, about 45 minutes after lifting off, the balloon careened into high-tension powerlines that crisscrossed the Texas countryside. The balloon plunged to the ground, claiming all 16 lives on board.

This was the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history. Furthermore, it was the deadliest U.S. aviation accident in more than 7 years.

We determined the probable cause of the crash was “the pilot’s pattern of poor decision-making that led to the initial launch, continued flight in fog and above clouds, and descent near or through clouds that decreased the pilot’s ability to see and avoid obstacles.” Further, we pointed out that “contributing to the accident were (1) the pilot’s impairing medical conditions and medications and (2) the Federal Aviation Administration’s [FAA’s] policy to not require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots.”

Our investigation revealed that the pilot had several medical conditions that would have precluded his legal ability to operate any aircraft, including a balloon. He was also taking medications prohibited when piloting. He had been arrested on four occasions for driving under the influence. Any of these conditions or circumstances would have barred his ability to obtain an FAA medical certificate.

Lockhart Blog 2
Post accident photo of the basket

But, here’s the odd thing: unlike commercial airplane and helicopter air tour pilots, commercial air tour balloon pilots are not required to have an FAA medical certificate. Our accident investigation report made clear: “The [FAA’s] exemption of balloon pilots from medical certification requirements eliminated the potential for (1) an aviation medical examiner to identify the pilot’s potentially impairing medical conditions and medications and/or (2) FAA awareness of his history of drug-and alcohol-related offenses, which could have led to [his pilot certificate being revoked or suspended] until satisfactorily resolved.” To close this loophole, we recommended a logical solution—that the FAA begin requiring medical certificates for commercial balloon pilots (Safety Recommendation A-17-34). “Require Medical Fitness” has been a focus of our Most Wanted List of critical transportation safety improvements since 2015.

As we wrapped up the Board meeting we held to deliberate this tragedy, I expressed my optimism that “today’s recommendations, if acted upon, will help to bring the safety standards and oversight of commercial passenger balloon operations closer to those that apply to powered flight.”

Sadly, it appears that optimism was misplaced. Two years after the Lockhart tragedy, and nearly 10 months after we issued this recommendation, we still haven’t received any indication that the FAA plans to require commercial balloon pilots to hold valid medical certificates.

The FAA should act. The victims of this horrible accident and their families deserve nothing less, and future balloon passengers deserve better.

Back-to-School Safety Series: Zero Tolerance Starts at Home

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

As teen drivers head back to school—and all the daily exposure to peer influence that implies—remember that you have influence, too. That’s especially important when the subject is impaired driving.

You already know that driving impaired is dangerous, but underage drinking and driving is especially deadly. In the United States, 19% of drivers age 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of at least 0.08%.

Chart of effects of BAC levels from .01 to .10Impairment begins with the first drink or the moment a mind- or mood-altering substance is ingested, inhaled, or injected. Teenagers drive under the influence of drugs other than alcohol in astonishing numbers; among the 62.6% of students nationwide who drove during the 30 days before a 2017 survey, 5.5% had driven a car or other vehicle one or more times when they had been drinking alcohol, and 16.5% had ridden one or more times in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking. Another survey showed that 19-year-old drivers drive under the influence of drugs at the staggering rate of 16%.

It’s important to point out that a broad range of drugs can be impairing. Illicit, prescribed, and over-the-counter drugs can all impair a driver. Whether it’s an allergy medication from the drug store or a prescription from a doctor, if the warning label reads, “do not operate heavy machinery,” that includes a car; driving should be avoided until the side effects pass.

Impairment is...

As a group, teenagers are at higher risk of experimenting with drugs or alcohol than adults. Teens’ brains are still developing and they’re less able to control their impulses than adults. It’s easy to see how teens can feel fearless in the face of tragedies they assume will “never happen to them”—until they do. The threat of injury from impaired driving crashes shouldn’t be the only deterrent. Consuming any alcohol at all under the age of 21 is illegal. All states have zero-tolerance laws for drivers under 21, meaning that driving with any or a very low BAC comes with great consequence. Teens who drive impaired can face DUI “school,” a lifelong conviction on their arrest record, and even jail time. And as more states begin to legalize marijuana, it’s a good time to remind teens that driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is illegal and, more importantly, can be deadly.

End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, and it applies to drivers of all ages. But young drivers (ages 16­­–20) are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a BAC of .08% than when they have not been drinking. Although the number of underage impaired driving crashes has decreased over the past decade, in 2016, alcohol was still a factor in 20 percent of fatal crashes involving teens.

For teenagers, the world is small, and nebulous concepts like dying in a car crash are more easily heard than taken to heart. Talk to your teen about the dangers of impaired driving—share with them a story of someone in your community who was killed or injured as the result of a drunk or drugged driver. Make clear to your teen that a poor choice, such as driving impaired, can negatively affect the rest of their life; for example, even if no one is hurt in an impaired-driving incident, a DUI, DWI, or DUID on your teen’s record can disqualify him or her from getting certain jobs as an adult.

Maybe most importantly: lead by example. Make it a household rule that driving impaired by any substance is unacceptable, and hold yourself to that rule. Choose to drink or drive, but not both. At the same time, assure your teen that if he or she does slip up and drink or do drugs, they can—and should—always call you or another trusted adult for a ride home. There may be a consequence to their choice, but it will never be as severe as what impaired driving could bring.

Be aware of the influences your teen faces at school every day, and counteract any negative ones with your own. Set the standard in your home and prep your teen up for success as the pressures of the school year go into full swing.